Bernie Sanders Will Remain in Race and Attend Sunday’s Debate

BURLINGTON, Vt. — Senator Bernie Sanders on Wednesday made a defiant case for his candidacy despite suffering big losses in the Democratic primary this week, and said that he planned to continue his bid for the presidency and attend the scheduled debate on Sunday against Joseph R. Biden Jr.

Appearing at an afternoon news conference here, Mr. Sanders acknowledged that he was “losing the debate over electability” to Mr. Biden as voters flocked to a candidate they believed had a better chance of defeating President Trump. But in an extraordinary sequence that highlighted his ideological resolve, he addressed Mr. Biden directly and challenged him to explain to the American people how he would solve problems of health care, income inequality and other issues that make up Mr. Sanders’s liberal agenda.

“What are you going to do?” Mr. Sanders asked repeatedly as he ticked off a list of issues that also included climate change, poverty, mass incarceration and the criminal justice system.

His decision to continue casts more uncertainty over a primary race already upended by the coronavirus crisis, which has forced both candidates to curtail appearances before big crowds and to plan for a debate on Sunday without a live audience. Mr. Sanders made clear that he would persist in his efforts to win over voters, saying that “a strong majority of the American people support our progressive agenda” — even as Mr. Biden’s recent victories gave him a commanding advantage.

Mr. Biden won four states Tuesday with a broad coalition of African-Americans, suburban white voters and union members, and dealt Mr. Sanders a stinging blow with an overwhelming victory in Michigan, where Mr. Sanders had counted on his populist message to revive his flagging candidacy.

“Last night obviously was not a good night for our campaign from a delegate point of view,’’ Mr. Sanders said. But he asserted that he was “winning the generational debate,” saying that while Mr. Biden was appealing to older voters, he was drawing younger Americans, and that the party needed to build around the leaders of the future.

“While our campaign has won the ideological debate, we are losing the debate over electability,” he said, adding that many people had told him they liked his agenda but were not convinced he could prevail in the general election.

Mr. Sanders left the podium without taking questions.

With over half the delegates still to be allocated, aides to Mr. Sanders said they saw more fertile terrain in the coming weeks. They point out that Mr. Sanders lost Illinois by less than a percentage point four years ago and see strength in Wisconsin and Puerto Rico. Georgia, with its heavily black electorate, will most likely go to Mr. Biden, who currently leads Mr. Sanders in delegates, 800 to 660.

Mr. Sanders spent the morning at home with his wife, Jane, on Wednesday, while aides and advisers debated the way forward in his increasingly long-shot campaign. He canceled a scheduled conference call with surrogates, saying in an email to them that it would be rescheduled “so that we can better provide you with the most updated plans for upcoming states,” according to a copy obtained by The New York Times.

Top aides gathered Wednesday morning in the lobby of Burlington’s Hotel Vermont, surrounded by luggage tagged with Mr. Sanders’s name on it as they prepared for an early-afternoon flight to Teterboro, N.J., for the Vermont senator’s scheduled appearance on Jimmy Fallon’s late-night television show. After getting pummeled in the Super Tuesday nominating contests last week, Mr. Sanders incurred a similar drubbing on Tuesday night, including in Michigan, where he had deployed resources and time in a final attempt to regain momentum. Mr. Sanders watched the results at his home with his wife while his aides gathered elsewhere, and later he opted not to make any public remarks.

Mr. Sanders had planned to hold a Friday rally in downstate Illinois, an event that aides now say will not happen because of concerns about the spread of the coronavirus. On Tuesday, he canceled a planned primary night rally in Cleveland. It’s not likely Mr. Sanders will be able to hold his signature rallies — which provide the evidence, as he says regularly, that his is the campaign of energy and enthusiasm — in the immediate future.

Instead the Sanders campaign is planning virtual campaign events such as tele-town halls and live-streamed events. But it’s not clear how Mr. Sanders will demonstrate the energy he boasts about from behind a computer screen or over a telephone line.

On Tuesday night, his most prominent surrogate, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, told viewers on her Instagram live stream that the election results were a setback for the progressive movement.

Aides said Mr. Sanders viewed the debate on Sunday in Phoenix as his first and possibly last opportunity face Mr. Biden one on one. Some inside the campaign have said their last chance to compete with Mr. Biden may be if the national public gets to see the former vice president up close, pointing to his fourth-place finish Iowa as evidence of what happens when voters get to know him.

Mr. Sanders has about $9 million worth of ads booked through March 17, including a $2 million buy this week.

Nick Corasaniti and Alexander Burns contributed reporting from New York.

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